Snooker knows it’s cool and just keeps on rolling along

Keith Duggan: the game remains blissfully indifferent to modern demands and constraints of time. A frame will take as long as it takes

One of the biggest debates about snooker concerns whether it is a sport or merely a game. There’s no correct answer, of course, because it has never been the right question. Snooker exists on a different plane. It’s not so much a sport or a game as a balm for the soul in a battered world.

There are many of us who had wrongly assumed that snooker’s golden age had irredeemably passed: that it was bound to the scrap heap of glittering late-20th century cultural icons like Spitting Image and Grange Hill and Yes, Minister and Rubik’s Cube.

Even during its heyday, in the four-channel TV-land dominated by bad news and Blind Date, snooker was a gloriously eccentric proposition. Here was an 18th century Raj game that somehow made for cross-generational entertainment in the awakening era of colour TV, with its dandyish etiquette, its hushed atmosphere and a louche cast of characters whose lifestyles, the newspapers breathlessly assured us, made the various members of the Rolling Stones look like a cautious accountancy firm.

If the mass-audience high point was the black-ball final of 1985 between Dennis Taylor and Steve Davis, snooker enjoyed an extraordinary run through the entire decade. Sheffield, the world championship, was the be all and end all.


Snooker never courted its audience. It was never hip or bothered with fashion and has moved with the times only insofar as the snooker arena is no longer wreathed in tobacco smoke and the players’ side-tables no longer resemble the end-scene of a particularly heavy all-nighter.

The stars never conformed to any physiological type but they tended to share a vampiric paleness caused by childhood daytimes spent mitching school and perfecting the craft that brought them to this point: the Crucible. (Is there a more perfectly named sports venue?)

Anyone who ever attempted a game of snooker even once understood that it was difficult to the point of daftness, and even now the television cameras, with all the flash angles, can never fully convey the unfathomable scale of the table when you queue behind the white ball.

At the Crucible the games were on television at novel hours – mid-morning, in the afternoon, late into the smoky night. Watch if you want, was the message. And millions were drawn, choosing their favourite players – Alex or Stephen or Kirk or Steve. Millions were hooked. Snooker became a craze.

If it’s true to say that snooker probably lost a good portion of that army of 1980s devotees as the millennium turned and time sped up and everyone disappeared down the rabbit hole of technology and infinite entertainment options, then it’s also true that snooker’s devotees didn’t care. Snooker kept doing its thing and its profile stayed just about mainstream through the turbulent genius of Ronnie O’Sullivan and the annual showcasing of the world championships.

It was as though the game knew it had you hooked. You could stop watching snooker for 20 full years and then, one idle afternoon, pause for a moment while channel surfing and find yourself slowly drawn in again to that curious arena where no sunlight is permitted and the crowd are always connoisseurs and time itself bends to the rhythms and quirks of the players at table. And that commentary! Whispered, reverential, absurdly grave and, for some reason, soothing.

And so, what a treat this weekend to see John Higgins and O'Sullivan, both 46 years old, both early-1990s kids, squaring up for a world championship semi-final match which started on Friday morning and will end only when one of them reaches 17 frames – maybe Saturday, maybe Sunday, who knows.

Great secret

And that is snooker's great secret. It remains blissfully indifferent to modern demands and constraints of time. A frame will take as long as it takes. That might mean a lightning 147 break by O'Sullivan or something like the 85-minute marathon frame between Mark Selby and Yan Bintao last week, a nerve-wracking war or attrition which went down to the black ball.

In an age where psychologists are fretting over diminished concentration levels, how strange and wonderful to stumble across a TV show featuring a room full of people riveted (in blissful, collective silence) to a game that is as much an exercise in mental toughness and strategic thinking as it is flamboyant scoring.

A snooker championship game is one of the few remaining public arenas on earth where nobody is bothered with a mobile phone. Here is a world without rolling emails and instant social updates, a world wholly unconcerned with the updates from the Kardashians or Johnny & Amber; here is a culture which Becks, bless his tattooed heart, can never hawk the latest thing to the punters because the snooker crowd is surely the most unreadable and unimpressionable set in all of sport.

What snooker promises is an hour (or five) of escapism, when the casual viewer and dedicated follower alike is pulled from the anxieties of the world and slowly, magically drawn into concerns of the auditorium (“ohhh . . . and Higgins has left himself a few centimetres short on the blue!”)

It’s a solemn game, of course, but has never taken itself too seriously and can lightly wear the off-hand comments of O’Sullivan, the spiritual inheritor of the bewitching facility showcased by Higgins and White, who is closing in on a seventh championship while claiming he doesn’t really care if he wins again.

It won’t stop him trying, of course, because O’Sullivan is no more immune to the magnetic pull of the game than anyone else. He just happens to be the most naturally gifted practitioner on the planet. “I’ve tried a number of religions and gurus in my time,” O’Sullivan declared, “but they didn’t do as much for my peace of mind as snooker.”